MBA Alumni

Rosa Li

MBA ’14
Founder & CEO, wildwonder
Rosa Li
Rosa Li
I wanted to do something to honor my grandma and bring more representation to retail shelves.
April 25, 2024

Rosa Li was working in finance in a high-stress private equity role, not sleeping well and losing weight, when gut health came onto her radar. “It impacts all aspects of health and wellness, from brain health to immunity,” she says. Li started eating more gut-friendly foods, and she stepped away from finance. She applied to the GSB to learn more about “soft” business skills, or how to best give and receive feedback on the job and manage relationships.

Li penned her GSB application on her desire to be a better investor. After graduating from Stanford, she thought she would focus her career on investing in fledgling companies. Instead, Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit inspired Li to start her own business.

As founder and CEO of wildwonder, Li brings consumers what she calls the world’s first organic, vegan, low-sugar sparkling beverage that combines prebiotics and probiotics. Her canned beverage line inspired by her Chinese grandmother blends botanicals and herbs with tropical fruit flavors like guava, pineapple and mango. “There’s really a growing awareness today of the impact of gut health,” says Li, who’s using lessons learned working in finance and at Stanford to continue scaling her beverage business.

You lived in China, speak German, and call yourself a global citizen. Where’s home?

Indianapolis is my hometown. But for the first 12 years of my life, I grew up in China where my grandma raised me. She was always making these teas and tonics. The whole idea of food as medicine was instilled in me from a very early age. When I moved to the U.S., I didn’t speak any English. In high school, I ended up taking German just for fun. I continued taking it in college, majoring in German, applied math, and economics, and then I studied abroad in Germany for two summers.

While at the GSB, you were inspired by startups. What drew you to them?

I loved the innovation, and during school, I worked at a number of startups. Startups always have needs, and they’re under-resourced, so I offered myself up as free labor so I could learn the ropes. I was helping ecommerce startups, mostly consumer products — a fashion startup, mom and baby products. I wanted to work on something tangible that I could potentially be a consumer of that’s relevant. Something that’s touchable is always more exciting for me. The experience ended up changing my career goals. I decided I wanted to be on the operating side and help startups grow a business instead of going back to investing. Having operating experience could also help me be a better investor down the road.

What are your top takeaways from your time at Stanford?

“My story has so many ups and downs, and it took a lot of turns to get to that next level.”

I didn’t come to Stanford to learn about accounting or finance. I was really there for the soft skills. [Interpersonal Dynamics] was a hugely impactful class for me as was Managing Growing Enterprises, which had founders come in and talk to us about how they scaled their companies and the challenges they went through. I was able to practice firing someone and I learned how to approach a difficult restructure — things that are useful to me now that I’m running a business. These days, when I’m dealing with a challenge, I often look back and say, this reminds me of that case study from Stanford.

Then, after graduation you ended up in Asia again. How did that lead to your current endeavor?

After business school I helped friends launch a business in Asia and also traveled around working on different projects. I spent a lot of time with my grandma, too. The first thing she greeted me with was tea, and she had this whole cabinet of herbs. Of course, nothing had changed. It got me thinking: how can I bring my Chinese heritage with me back to the U.S.? I wanted to do something both to honor my grandma and to bring more representation to retail shelves. Not long after, I started a loose-leaf tea company that ultimately became the inspiration for wildwonder. We officially launched the business in 2020. It was a time during the pandemic when the world was shut down. The sales process was so much harder. I packed my car with our product and over a three-month period knocked on over 100 independent grocery store doors in San Francisco. I volunteered to stock shelves while I pitched grocery store managers my product.

Starting out as somewhat of a novice in the industry, where did your recipes come from, and where did you find the expertise to develop these beverages?

While I’m no expert at making beverages and I had no idea how beverage manufacturing worked, my passion for food and exploring new flavors played a big role in developing my recipes. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I’ve always loved venturing through my local farmers’ markets and cooking up new recipes at home. So I started experimenting with creating drinks in my home kitchen inspired by grandma’s herbal tonics and California’s vibrant and fresh produce. I learned that to carbonate something is actually quite hard if you don’t have any industrial machinery. You can carbonate water at home with a SodaStream, but SodaStream couldn’t carbonate liquids that don’t have a PH level of 7, at least at the time; the liquid ended up just exploding. So I worked with an engineering friend of mine to build my own carbonation machine with a keg and various tubes. We created this device to carbonate drinks in a fairly timely fashion. It was inspired by friends of mine who own breweries. It was important for me to be able to carbonate quickly so I could figure out if I had the right taste with the teas that I brewed and the different combinations of fruit juices and herbs I was making. I really just had to learn along the way. Every food entrepreneur has to do some amount of learning on their own.

One of your claims to fame has been going on the ABC reality TV show Shark Tank. Tell us about that.

Mark Cuban tried our Strawberry Passion flavor and he said, “I’ll order it; it was really really good!” We ended up landing a deal with the show’s first East Asian guest shark and DoorDash CEO Tony Xu [MBA ’13]. After the episode aired, wildwonder made a whole year of online sales in just one month.

What’s been one of your biggest challenges?

Fundraising. Female founders, minority founders, and solo founders just don’t get as much money. Being all three, I kind of get the short end of the stick. I also don’t come from the beverage industry, which historically has seen a lack of diversity. So, we’ve had to learn ways in which to be very strategic and very resourceful. From the beginning, our thinking has been, is this a scalable product? If the answer is no, we wouldn’t do it.

Gut health products, and particularly beverages, have taken off in recent years. Where do you think the industry is headed?

Kombucha started 20-plus years ago, and over the last 10 years, more people have learned about it. But kombucha is really an acquired taste. It’s not for everyone. These days though, people are more open to probiotics, and there’s a rising trend of gut health. We all know that sugar and sugary drinks are inflammatory and people are cutting down on sugar, too. It’s a great tailwind for us because our drinks have 90% less sugar than sodas. There’s really this huge shift underway toward better-for-you food and beverages. Why have empty calories when you could have something that can offer health benefits?

Any advice for GSB students and recent graduates?

In one class I took at the GSB I remember the professor asked us all to draw what success would look like for us. A lot of people drew a chart where there was a line going from the bottom left-hand side of the page to the top right like a rocket ship going up and up. But that’s not really what success looks like for most people. My story has so many ups and downs, and it took a lot of turns to get to that next level. So, my advice really is to understand that success is not a straight line. There are going to be lots of ups and downs, and it’s really important to enjoy the journey. It’s not always about the result that you’re hoping for or expecting that, in the end, may not actually come.

Photos by Chloe Jackman Studios

Rosa Li
Rosa Li
MBA ’14
Founder & CEO, wildwonder
San Francisco, California, USA
MBA, Stanford GSB
LSE, London School of Economics and Political Science
BA, Economics, Northwestern University
Professional Experience
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